How ‘Biden Republicans’ Took Over the Suburbs
In 1998, when Dave Woodward was elected to the state House at age 22, one of the things that immediately separated him from other young win-it-now political obsessives was his patience. He saw a trend: Bill Clinton had won Oakland County in 1996, the first Democrat to carry it in decades. If they could just convince those people to vote Democratic lower on the ballot, that could change everything.
Having grown up in Oakland during the ’80s and ’90s, Dave knew the county’s reputation as a place for the wealthy and well-connected. He also knew that it bore little resemblance to the lives of many people in the county—himself included. “In Oakland County, particularly, prosperity—in so many ways—is all around you,” he says. “The opulence is all around you.”
Born and raised in Royal Oak, one of the middle-class, inner-ring suburbs in the south end of the county, his family was neither wealthy nor well-connected. His dad worked retail at Sears for 25 years—a working-class living that put food on the table but wasn’t the kind of money that created feather-bed comfort. Woodward’s interest in politics started in high school, but when it came time for college, he needed to be practical: At Wayne State, he set himself up for a career as an actuary. But being an actuary didn’t excite him—not like politics. In 1998, Woodward ran for the open seat being vacated by his hometown state representative, a Democrat. Woodward didn’t have a whole lot of money or connections and Royal Oak was still a battleground with lots of moderate Republicans—and the year was otherwise miserable for Michigan Democrats—but he won anyway, with nearly 55 percent of the vote.
He arrived in Lansing, 22 and impossibly boyish-looking, as the youngest member of the minority party. And though he threw himself into constituent services and bread-and-butter issues like clean water and consumer protection, he quickly found that minority status imposed limits on what you could achieve through hard work alone. Still, he believed the rah-rah attitude of his more experienced fellow legislators who vowed to take back the House in 2000.
“And right after that didn’t happen, I and a group of people sat down to say, ‘All right, we’ve got to map this out,’” remembers Woodward.
On paper, they sketched out a 10-year plan to build the Democratic Party in Oakland County. At the time, the county party was more a loose confederation of local groups and elected officials’ campaigns than anything resembling a coherent organization.
“We had to build everything from scratch,” says Woodward.
He started by identifying local races where they stood a chance of making gains. Initially, the model for this calculation was crude. “It was like, ‘Where was the margin of loss less than 10 percent? Let’s start there,” Woodward laughs.
“I’ll be honest, there were some folks who got mad at me because we didn’t help everybody in the same way,” he says. “But this was about winning! It’s about winning elections and then winning majorities so that we can actually govern. … The goal, for me, is not just to compete in an election for the sake of an election; it’s what you do with the power once you have it.”
To start, that meant finding voters. Woodward knew Democrats existed in Oakland—Bill Clinton won in there 1996 and Al Gore in 2000, which, in retrospect, were early signs of a national shift in the political preferences of college graduates—but he also knew that those voters either tended not to vote in down-ballot races, or split their tickets.
“It’s all so high-tech now, the modeling and all that type of stuff,” says Woodward. “This was old-school: I needed to find us 5,000 more Democrats. So we’re going door-to-door and asking, ‘Are you a Democrat?’ We found them. And we built a database and made certain to put energy and resources into making sure that everyone we identified a year-and-a-half out from the election ended up voting. … It’s not rocket science. It was like, ‘This person should be voting with us, but just hasn’t.’”
In November 2002, Woodward won his third term in the state House—his final one, thanks to term limits. At 26, talk naturally turned to what he wanted to do next. In Oakland, Democrats made gains, but the hole was deep: Republicans had a 19-6 supermajority on the county board.
Woodward had attended one of those 19-6 county board meetings, and remembers speaking afterwards with Dave Coulter, a Ferndale Democrat elected to the board in 2002.
“That was my first elected office, so I was a bit crestfallen to see how little you can really get done in a minority that small,” says Coulter. He had worked to build collegial, productive relationships with the Republicans on the commission—and with Patterson himself, for that matter. But it wasn’t enough to actually manifest the change he wanted to see.
Woodward was offering to help. “I’m like, ‘OK, clearly we need some more Democrats elected,’” Woodward laughs. “He’s like, ‘Ya think?!’”
In the process of recruiting candidates, the tables turned on Woodward: Dave, you’re term-limited. Why don’t you run?
It was not exactly advisable for a rising star to leave the legislature to pursue lower office, running in a seat where he’d face a Republican incumbent whom Patterson was grooming to be the next chairman of the board. Plus, he would still be in the minority. But that was where his work was: turning Oakland blue.
In November 2004, Woodward upset the Republican incumbent. Several of his recruits won, too. The Republican majority shrunk from 19-6 to 15-10. Now it was time to slam on the accelerator. Woodward and Coulter came up with a new plan.
“For the next six years that I was [on the board], we sort of divided up responsibilities,” Coulter says. “He oversaw the ‘political’ side of things [for the Democrats], and I sort of oversaw the ‘caucus management’ and ‘negotiating with [Patterson]’ side of things. And that worked for us. … I would try to raise issues and policies, and then Dave would try to translate those into votes.”
They picked issues designed to contrast with Patterson’s Republicans, like transit, clean water, urban redevelopment and making sure middle-class areas weren’t neglected in favor of wealthier communities.
“It was a combination of raising issues that were emerging … and then getting candidates who were credible,” says Coulter.
“It’s not just a winning formula; these are things that the voters want,” says Woodward.
Patterson saw Democrats making gains and it perturbed him. But he understood the cause of it earlier than most in his party. “I’ve said all along that the far-right wing of the [GOP] has done a very effective job of running moderate women out of the party,” he told the Free Press in 2004.
But what Patterson might not have expected was that Woodward had his eyes on something that Republicans had taken for granted as theirs to control: redistricting.
It was a quirk of Michigan law: The state legislature controlled the once-in-a-decade redistricting process for federal and state legislative maps. New county commission lines, however, were decided by a panel made up of five people: the chairs of the county’s Democratic and Republican Parties, the county clerk, treasurer and prosecutor.
After the 2006 election, the Republican majority on the board was just 13-12. Whoever controlled the district lines after the 2010 census would likely determine the majority. All of the countywide posts would be up in 2008—a presidential year, which meant high turnout for Democrats—and one of those offices, Patterson’s old job of county prosecutor, was an open seat. In November, Barack Obama carried Oakland with 56.5 percent of the vote. Patterson won a fifth term as county executive with 58 percent of the vote. Republicans held the clerk’s office, but Democrats picked up the treasurer and prosecutor posts—which meant they would control redistricting in the county for the first time in generations. Woodward would get his majority. It was all going according to plan.
But there was one thing Woodward hadn’t planned for: Patterson’s sway in the state capital.
At Patterson’s behest, the GOP state legislature rewrote the rules of county redistricting to strip control from the five-member bipartisan panel and hand it to the GOP-controlled county board. And lest there be any doubt about why this was happening, the new law was written in such a manner that it applied only to Oakland County—only to counties with a population of more than 1 million (there are two: Wayne and Oakland) that didn’t operate by their own charter (just Oakland).
“Brooks came [to Lansing] and said, ‘Hey, make this exception for Oakland County,’” one top Michigan Republican strategist who was involved in the episode told me. “He wanted the board. When he was exec, it was more like they weren’t an independently elected board; even though they were, Brooks ran them. He gave them their agenda. … They did what Brooks wanted. He ran that county like a king. He wanted a compliant board. That mattered more to him than [them being] Republicans, quite honestly.”
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law in December 2011.